Every year in June, Apple holds its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) to show off the shiny new features planned for the next release of iOS. People from all over the world flock to San Francisco and tune into the live stream to witness this event. The feeling is akin to the excitement experienced by eager children unwrapping gifts on Christmas Day. These feelings are a sign of the growing bond society has formed with technology. However, this year’s announcement might be trying to reverse that trend. In an attempt to create awareness of ‘digital health’, Apple has seemingly focused many of its new iOS features around reducing screen addiction.
Most of us are glued to the little screen in our pocket in a very intimate way. You might even say that phones have become the most personal objects in people’s everyday lives. They hold a plethora of information about who we are, what we do, where we go, our what we like and who we speak to. How long has it been since you spent a day without your phone? More recently we have begun to switch on to our digital addiction. This addiction is in part the responsibility of the companies that designed these products. Modern smartphones were designed to be engaging, with large vibrant screens, touch input, stereo sound, and just in case that doesn’t keep you coming back, haptic feedback to remind you when you receive a notification. So far there is no easy way to reign control over the addictive powers of these devices. As people become more aware, we are asking for the creators of these devices to enable us with tools that will give us more control over our digital lives .
It seems like 2018 is the start of our digital cleansing. From the introduction of stricter data privacy laws that brought us into the new year, to the release of iOS 12 scheduled for later in the year, it seems like 2018 will end with us having more awareness and control over our digital lives. Apple and Google have clearly awoken to the level of addiction they have enabled, and, as a measure to fix it, iOS 12 contains a handful of new settings to keep people in the physical world. Similar to Android P these new features will be disabled by default and thus will require users to opt in. Nonetheless it might be enough to help those who need it.
The first notable addition to iOS 12 is dubbed ‘Screen Time’, and as the name suggests its aim is to reduce the time we spend on our screens. The feature can be accessed through the iPhone’s settings app. Upon entering this feature you will be presented with simple usage stats that try to enlighten you on how often you use your phone. You can now view stats about how long you have been on your phone, how often you pick it up, and how many notifications you have received. This information is presented in a graph charted over 24 hours or the last 7 days. Usage is then broken down by app categories or by individual apps. Personally, I was quite surprised to see that I spent over 2 hours a day on my phone, and picked it up on average every 9 minutes.
If, like me, this information brings you to the conclusion you are using your phone too often, then you will also have the option of setting a limit on the types of apps you can access and for how long. You may also want to setup a feature called ‘downtime’. This will allow you to set aside a period during the day where your app access is restricted and all notifications are hidden from the lockscreen. This is a great addition for anyone seeking refuge from the temptations of their phone, especially those wanting to schedule some uninterrupted me time or family time. These features can also be setup as parental features to instill healthier digital habits in children. All in all I think the Screen Time feature set is a modest first step in the right direction towards correcting our unhealthy digital obsession.
Improved notification control was also announced as an addition to the suite of features that enable users more control over their smartphone relationship. Notifications all too often are the source of our constant checking behaviour; they are what interrupt us when we are focused. It’s become so common now that it’s almost acceptable for people to check their phone mid conversation. In particular, social apps are especially responsible for constantly spamming us for attention. iOS 12 now allows you to 3D touch on any notification and right there and then switch off or silence notifications from that app. This is a big deal, as previously it required opening Unlocking your phone, opening Settings, finding the app in question, and then decoding the confusing array of notification options. Now by 3D touching a notification, you are instantly presented with two options: ‘Deliver quietly’ and ‘Turn off’.
I’ve installed many apps that would pester me all day long with the same information, and rather than going to the lengthy process of customising my notification preferences I’d rather simply uninstall the app. After testing out iOS 12 I have already opted to silence notifications from a few pesky apps. This means that apps, more than ever, should be considering what they notify their users about. Is it really important to tell your users via a notification, or can it wait until they open the app? Apps have a responsibility to users, not to overwhelm. Once iOS 12 is released, the penalty for such apps will be silencing the app all together.
We’ll have to wait and see if iOS 12’s set of digital health features will have a significant effect on the time we spend on our phones. But for now it looks promising, as long as we can recognise we have a problem and bring ourselves to utilise the features of Screen Time. We, as app developers and designers, should also be reconsidering when to send a notification, and why. Notifications will always be distracting, but we can aim to limit the amount of times they distract us. If we don’t, then customers are likely to silence all notifications once they update to iOS 12.